IGNITE inspires local students through education

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Supporters of the IGNITE center gather for its official ribbon cutting on August 11 at 418 North Sixth Street in Gadsden.

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

One man’s vision to better the education of Gadsden students manifested in August, with the establishment of an incredible resource located at 418 North Sixth Street – Inspiring Growth Now in Transformational Education (IGNITE).

Through the collaborative efforts of a city united to equip its citizens with essential skills for successful futures, local advocates and community pillars transformed an idea into a reality, welcoming the public to witness what occurs when collective passions produce positive action.

When Fred Zachary approached United Way of Etowah County Executive Director Ruth Moffatt concerning the lack of an accessible library in the county’s fifth and city’s third districts, Moffatt – who shared Zachary’s desire for change – knew she had to help. Zachary and Moffatt’s initial conversation sparked a series of connections that would evolve over the course of only one month to produce a center enriched with opportunity for years to come.

“This is really a dream come true for me, for this community and hopefully other communities around the village,” said Zachary. “We are in desperate need of our children reading by three, not third grade – to be introduced to the very valuable adventure of being able to read, recall letters interpret and transition into real reading. A person who cannot read by the third grade is in trouble.”

“If we can ignite this whole Gadsden community to get our children reading on national levels and above with excellence, we have created the biggest job creator in Etowah County. Jobs don’t come where folks can’t read. Jobs don’t come where folks can’t count. Jobs don’t come where you have a mediocre education and the promise of less.”

While IGNITE originated as an after-school reading room for children, it soon took root as something more. After discussions with Gadsden City School System’s Director of Special Education Sharon Maness and Gadsden State Community College President Dr. Kathy Murphy, a tutoring element joined the program.

At the IGNITE building, provided by Greater Gadsden Housing Authority, students are offered four annual leadership classes via Greater Gadsden Housing Authority’s STEM program. Donations from First Choice Personnel’s Dedra Whittenburg ensured the implementation of a computer lab, while students receive access to books, assistance with reading and free tutoring on a variety of subjects, courtesy of a team of educators from Gadsden City Schools System.

Murphy’s implementation of GED courses during the day filters into IGNITE’s mission to serve individuals of all ages, from birth until college, preparing them at every stage of life for their next step. Courses on finances, leadership and college preparation will be available, while Moffatt and Murphy are discussing the possibility of awarding Gadsden State scholarships to program participants.

In addition to the educational needs IGNITE serves, the center provides nourishment in the form of meals for students and their siblings who attend. While COVID-19 regulations inhibit the center from offering a sit-down meal, students can take meals to go back to their homes; and Moffatt anticipates beginning with 75 meals per day. Maness added that social workers will be present at IGNITE four days a week for students and parents alike.

Moffatt shared that IGNITE emerges as a perfect representation of United Way’s mission to convene the caring power of the community. Such a prompt and ardent response to IGNITE’s cause awakened compassionate leaders to contribute however possible, resulting in every aspect of IGNITE manifesting through donations and volunteerism.

“You raise a community by the community,” said Moffatt. “[United Way’s] role is convening the community, bringing them together and making them aware. Our community stepped up to the plate. We gave the clarion call and the community answered.”

“I strongly believe this – I think every person that’s heard about this has been ignited to move to action, and I believe that same spirit is going to be in the children. They’re going to come in and be ignited to learn, to go a little bit further in knowing they have assistance here. If they’re having problems at school, the tutors can work in tandem to help the students. If they can’t get on the internet, there’s a place here that they can do that. It’s a community collaboration…every piece has purpose and was needed.”

“If you bring [a project] to the community and let them know you care, typically they will chip in and participate,” said Maness. “They just need to know that somebody cares, and that they have opportunities. I’ve learned from this community (and Gadsden City Schools has offered tutoring in this area previously because of that), that kids want to learn – they just need the opportunity. We’re a team [at IGNITE] and we want them to feel like this is their place. This is a place to learn, to come for resources…we just want to be a community that produces happy, healthy children and adults who are eager to learn.”

Zachary, Moffatt and Maness joined elected officials and educational leaders for an official ribbon cutting on August 11, hosted by The Chamber of Gadsden and Etowah County. Gadsden City Schools Superintendent Tony Reddick, who Zachary deemed a “renaissance man,” advocated for the program’s worth and reflected on his own personal experience working with a reach out program in the Sixth Street community during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Reddick commended his administrative staff for their efforts in IGNITE’s establishment, who he trusts with such a precious vision. He pledged to make his presence known at the center, offering ACT prep for junior and senior high school students.

“Nothing is more important than our youth right now and the challenge they have before them,” said Reddick. “The challenge of getting these students to read before third grade shouldn’t be as daunting as it seems, and it won’t be as long as there are programs like IGNITE. I couldn’t help but be reminded of a movie, Field of Dreams, [that says] ‘If you build it, they will come.’ That is our hope. We have built it and we believe they’re going to come. I can tell you, they’re going to come.”

Gadsden City Councilman and District 3 Representative Thomas Worthy expressed his gratitude for all involved with making IGNITE possible. He shared that as a police officer for 26 years, education provides an outlet for students to further their opportunities in life and escape crime, something he witnessed firsthand. Worthy attested to the value of teamwork striving toward a collective goal, evident in IGNITE’s purpose and creation.

“Education is the only way to move forward,” said Worthy. “The kids need it. You have to have that foundation. We really appreciate [IGNITE] for bringing this to District 3, to our community. It’s so important to collaborate – one group cannot do everything. Once we get there, and people don’t worry about who is getting the credit, we’re going to move forward a lot more than we are now.”

Etowah County Commissioner and District 5 Representative Jeffery Washington reiterated the powerful impact reading administers on a child, inspiring them to excel and achieve and dream.

“[IGNITE] is an opportunity for kids to see that reading is important in their life and everyday walk,” said Washington. “I think that when people see a need and have the same understanding, we begin to pull our resources together to make things happen collectively, because of the urgency and the attention that needs to be given to the situation.”

“I would like IGNITE programs in all of Greater Gadsden Housing Authority locations and local community centers, where their kids can take advantage and be encourage to read. If they’re going to excel, they must learn how to read. With the tutoring available to them, and through reading [and understanding] what they can achieve, [IGNITE] can change their outlet and perspective on how they see themselves, [inspiring] their imagination.”

Like Washington, Moffatt and Maness envision IGNITE as only the beginning. As they nourish the seed they planted and watch as it grows, Moffatt and Maness treasure the hope for multiple sites in IGNITE’s future, with test scores improving and students returning as living testimonies of the program’s influence – a program committed to raising up members of its community to fulfill their purposes in life.

“There’s a saying, ‘Don’t despise small beginnings,’” said Moffatt. “You walk in the door [of IGNITE] and you see kind of a small dwelling and you know we’re going to have some limitations, we can only have so many at a certain time. But you’ve got to start somewhere. Don’t despise what seems like small beginnings, because if you help one child, you’ve made a difference.”

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